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US launches US$4.3b plan to reduce reliance on Russian uranium imports

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By Imelda Cotton - 

The US Government is pushing legislators to support a US$4.3 billion plan to reduce the nation’s reliance on enriched uranium imports from Russia by promoting direct purchases from domestic producers.

The proposal would see the government act as a guaranteed buyer of domestic enriched uranium production and aims to spur development of enrichment and other steps needed to turn uranium into reactor fuel.

It would allow the US to wean itself off Russian imports and loosen a supply deficit facing Western countries.

Key congressional staff from the US Biden administration have engaged in talks with officials from the Department of Energy, with the latter claiming that any interruption to the supply of enriched Russian uranium could cause operational disruptions at US commercial nuclear reactors.

The talks come after the government said it would consider placing sanctions on enriched uranium imports from Russia in response to the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine in February, alongside the possibility that Russia could also decide to halt imports.

Uranium into fuel

Uranium enrichment is the process of turning uranium into fuel to run light water reactors (which make up the majority of reactors in the world).

In 2020, Russia accounted for 16.5% of the uranium imported into the US, while Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan accounted for 8% and 22% respectively.

In the same period, Russia supplied approximately 23% of the enriched uranium needed to power US commercial reactors.

It also provides about 35% of enriched uranium globally.

According to research by the World Nuclear Association, Russia has the biggest enrichment capacity in the world, with China ranked second.

Declining production

US domestic uranium production has declined steeply in recent times, with the Energy Information Administration being unable to publish quarterly production figures in the last two years due to a low reporting threshold.

If the government’s bid to end its reliance on Russia takes flight, experts say it won’t be easy for the nation to jump-start its domestic uranium industry.

The country has only one remaining commercial enrichment facility at a plant in New Mexico owned by British-German-Dutch consortium Urenco.